HOW AUGUSTINE CAME TO MILAN, AND HOW HIS TEMPEST-TOSSED SOUL FOUND LIGHT AND PEACE AT LASTAugustine had not been a year in Rome before he discovered that the ways of the Roman students were not quite so delightful as he had been led to believe. They were less insolent, it is true, than those of Carthage, and not so rough; but they had other defects which were quite as trying. They would, for instance, attend the classes of a certain professor until the time arrived to pay their fees, when, deserting in a body to another school, they would proceed to play the same trick there. It was certainly one way of getting an education for nothing, but it was hard on the teachers. It seemed scarcely the profession in which one would be likely to make a fortune, even if it were possible to earn one's daily bread. Augustine was discouraged and sick at heart; everything seemed to be against him; there was no hope, no light anywhere. His life seemed doomed to be a failure, in spite of all his gifts.
And then, quite suddenly, came the opening that he had longed for. Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, received a letter from Milan, requesting him to name a professor of rhetoric for the vacant chair in that city. A competition was announced in which Symmachus, himself a well-known orator, was to be the judge. Augustine entered and won the prize. It was an excellent and honourable position. The professor was supported by the State. The Emperor Valentinian held his Court in the city, which gave it a certain position.
Augustine was furnished with letters of introduction to Ambrose, the Bishop, who had been brilliantly successful at the Bar in his youth, and was probably an old friend of Symmachus. He was of a noble Roman family, and famous alike for his great learning and peculiar charm of manner. He was famous also for his holiness of life, but this was of less interest to Augustine; it was Ambrose the orator with whom he desired to make acquaintance.
No sooner had he arrived in Milan than he presented himself before the Bishop, who received him with a cordial courtesy that attracted Augustine at once. The only way to judge of his eloquence was to attend the sermons at the cathedral. This Augustine began to do regularly. He found that Ambrose had not been overpraised. He listened to him at first with the pleasure it always gave him to hear an eloquent speaker; then, gradually, with a shock of surprise, he began to attend to what the Bishop said, as well as to his manner of saying it.
Ambrose was explaining the doctrines of the Church. He spoke very clearly and simply, to the intelligence no less than to the heart, for there were many catechumens in his congregation, as well as pagans who were seeking for the truth.
The Manicheans had deceived him, then, thought Augustine; they had lied about the Church's teaching; or they themselves had been ignorant of it, and he had let himself be deceived. This was altogether unlike what they had told him. It was noble and sublime; all that was great and good in him responded. Had he found the Truth at last?
In the meantime Monica, determined to rejoin her son, arrived in Milan. The journey had been long and dangerous; they had been assailed by terrible storms; even the sailors had lost courage. It was she who had comforted them in their fear. "The storm will soon be over," she assured them; "I know that we shall reach our journey's end in safety." She had a strong conviction that she would not die until her prayers had won Augustine back to God. The sailors took heart again at her words; her calm eyes strengthened them; they felt that this gentle woman knew things that were hidden from them.
Monica's first visit was to St. Ambrose. The two noble natures understood each other at once. "Thank God for having given you such a mother," said the Bishop to Augustine, when he met him a few days later; "she is one in a thousand."
Much had happened since mother and son had parted, and much had to be told. The first thing that Monica heard was that Augustine had left the Manicheans. At this she rejoiced greatly; she was convinced, she told him, that she would see him a Catholic before she died. "Thus she spoke to me," says Augustine, "but to Thee, O Fountain of Mercy, she redoubled her prayers and her tears, beseeching Thee to hasten Thine aid and dispel my darkness." They went together now to the sermons and sat side by side in the Church as in the days of Augustine's childhood. One by one he laid aside the false ideas of the truth that had been given to him by the Manicheans. It was growing clearer to him every day. True, there was much that was above his understanding—above the understanding of any human being, as Ambrose frankly acknowledged—but not above their faith. The Manicheans had sneered at faith as childish and credulous; and yet, thought Augustine, how many things he believed that he could have no possibility of proving. He believed, for instance, that Hannibal had crossed the Alps, although he had not been present at the time. He believed that Athens existed, although he had never been there.
As of old, a little group of friends had gathered round him at Milan. There was Alypius, the most beloved of all his associates, who had taken the place of the dear dead friend of his boyhood. There was Romanianus, who was there on State business, and Licentius, his son, with Trigetius, both pupils of Augustine's; Nebridius, who had been with him in Carthage, and was, like himself, a native of Roman Africa; and several new friends he had made in Milan. It was agreed amongst them that they should set apart a certain time every day to seek for the truth, reading and discussing among themselves. The Scriptures were to form part of the reading.
"Great hope has dawned," wrote Augustine; "the Catholic Faith teaches not what we thought and vainly accused it of. Life is vain, death uncertain; if it steals upon us of a sudden, in what state shall we depart hence? And where shall we learn what here we have neglected? Let us not delay to seek after God and the blessed life."
There was in Milan a holy old priest called Simplicianus, greatly beloved by St. Ambrose, for he had been his teacher and guide in early life. To him Augustine resolved to go; he might be able to help him. He told Simplicianus, amongst other things, that he had been reading a book of philosophy translated by a Roman called Victorinus. The book was good, said Simplicianus, but the story of Victorinus' own life was better. He had known him well in Rome. Augustine was interested; he would like to hear the story, he said.
Victorinus, said the old man, was a pagan and a worshipper of the heathen gods. He was a famous orator, and taught rhetoric to some of the noblest citizens of Rome. He was learned in every science, and was so celebrated for his virtue that a statue had been erected to him in the forum. In his old age, after earnest study, he became a Christian, but remained a long time a catechumen through fears of what his friends would say. At last taking courage, he prepared himself for Baptism, and, to punish himself for his human respect, insisted on reading his profession of faith aloud before the whole congregation, instead of making it, as was usual, in private.
This courageous action of an old man made Augustine feel his own cowardice. He believed now that the Catholic Church was the true Church, and yet he could not face the thought of Baptism. He would have to give up so much. The Christian standard was high for a man who had spent his life in self-indulgence. He could never attain to it. He took leave of Simplicianus sadly; the help which he needed was not to be found there.
"I went about my usual business," he says, "while my anxiety increased as I daily sighed to Thee." He frequented the Church now even when there were no sermons, for he began to feel the need of prayer.
One day when Alypius and he were alone together there came in a friend of theirs, Pontitianus, a devout Christian, who held a post at the Emperor's Court. Finding the Epistles of St. Paul upon the table, he smiled at Augustine, saying that he was glad that he was reading them, for they were full of teaching. He began to tell them about St. Anthony, and of the many hermitages and monasteries in Egypt, and even here in his own country. He spoke to them of the monastic life and its virtues, and, seeing their interest and astonishment, went on to tell them an incident that had happened a short time before.
Two young men of the Imperial Court, friends of his own, walking together in the country, came to a cottage inhabited by some holy recluses. A life of St. Anthony lay on the table. One of them took it up and began to read. His first feeling was one of astonishment, his second of admiration. "How uncertain life is!" he said suddenly to his companion. "We are in the Emperor's service. I wish we were in God's; I had rather be His friend than the Emperor's." He read on, with sighs and groans. At last he shut the book and arose. "My mind is made up," he said; "I shall enter God's service here and now. If you will not do so too, at least do not try to hinder me." "You have chosen well," said the other; "I am with you in this." They never left the hermitage.
This story only increased Augustine's misery. He had had more graces than these young men, and had wasted them; he was a coward. When Pontitianus had gone away, he left Alypius and went out into the garden. Alypius followed and sat down beside him.
"What are we about!" cried Augustine hotly. "The unlearned take heaven by force, and we, with all our heartless learning, wallow in the mire!" He sank his face in his hands and groaned. The way lay clear before him; he had found the Eternal Truth for which he had been seeking so long, and he had not the courage to go further.
This and that he would have to do; this and that he would have to give up—he could not: it was too hard.
And yet—to stand with both feet on the rock of truth, was it not worth all this and more?
So the battle raged. Good and evil struggled together in his soul.
It seemed to him then that he saw a long procession winding across the garden. It passed him and faded in the distance. First came boys and girls, young and weak, scarcely more than children, and they mocked him gently. "We have fought and conquered," they said, "even we." After them came a great multitude of men and women in the prime of life, some strong and vigorous, some feeble and sickly. It seemed to Augustine as if they looked at him with eyes full of contempt. "We have lived purely," they said, "we have striven and conquered." They were followed by old men and women, worn with age and suffering. They looked at him reproachfully. "We have fought and conquered," they said, "we have endured unto the end."
Augustine's self-control was leaving him; even Alypius' presence was more than he could bear. He leapt to his feet, went to the other end of the garden, and, throwing himself down on the ground, wept as if his heart would break. His soul, tossed this way and that in its anguish, cried desperately to God for help.
Suddenly on the stillness of the summer afternoon there broke the sound of a child's voice, sweet, insistent. "Tolle, lege," it sang; "tolle, lege" ("Take and read").
Augustine stood up. There was no one there; no human being was in sight. "Tolle, lege; tolle, lege," rang the sweet voice again and again in his ear, now on this side, now on that. Was this the answer to his prayer?
He remembered how St. Anthony had opened the sacred Scriptures on a like occasion, and had found the help that he required. Going back to Alypius, he took up the sacred volume and opened it. "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh and the concupiscence thereof," he read.
Light, strength, and conviction flowed into his soul. With God's help all things were possible; he would give up all and follow Him. Then, having carefully marked the place, he sat down beside Alypius and told him of his resolution.
"What about me?" asked Alypius, "Perhaps there is something there for me too. Let me see." He took the book from Augustine, opened at the place he had marked, and read: "He that is weak in the faith take unto you." "That will do very well for me," he said.
Augustine's first thought was for Monica. He must go to her, and at once. They sat together hand in hand until the sun sank in a rose-coloured glory and the cool shadows of the evening fell like a blessing on the earth. There are some joys too deep for speech, too holy to be touched by mortal hands.